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United We Can bottle depot moves, street vending increases

Commercial space in a Downtown Eastside social-housing project that was to help offset the cost of the facility has remained vacant since the building opened in 2009.

The recent relocation of the United We Can bottle depot was expected to reduce congestion and street vending on the block where the depot was located and that is also home to the $22-million Lux social-housing project. Instead, the depot’s move has been followed by an increase in street vending and other illegal activity, according to building owners and non-profit groups in the neighbourhood.

The vacant retail space and concerns around street vending are part of a broader debate over gentrification and displacement in the Downtown Eastside, where up to 67 per cent of the neighbourhood’s 18,500 residents are considered low income. Community groups have tracked the loss of hundreds of single-room occupancy hotel rooms rented at welfare rates to development or renovation in recent years. New restaurants have been picketed.

That tension is playing out on the zero block of East Hastings between Carrall and Columbia.

“We are very concerned,” Geoffrey Howes, a spokesman for Living Balance, said on Wednesday. Living Balance is part of an investment group that bought and renovated a former pawn shop on the same block as the Lux.

“There was an expectation that when United We Can left, that the street would improve dramatically,” said Mr. Howes, who is also a director of the non-profit United We Can.

“Well, United We Can has been gone a month – and the street vending, and the street activity, has dramatically increased. Probably three-fold than what it ever was in the past.”

United We Can, a recycling depot where people can bring empty bottles and cans and exchange them for cash, in May moved from its long-time location on East Hastings street to a new site about two kilometres away. Its former home is slated for redevelopment.

A city representative was not immediately available to discuss the vacant space at the Lux. In an e-mail, a spokeswoman said the city is obligated to lease the spaces at market rates and “to date, there has been no interest.”

It is hoped interest will increase after the adoption of community plans including the Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan that “address issues such as high-street and business revitalization,” she added.

This year’s Downtown Eastside Local Area Plan calls for Hastings Street to be a mixed-use corridor and local retail street.

The ongoing street vending on the block where the Lux is located discourages would-be tenants and underscores the need for a permanent, full-time location for the Downtown Eastside Street Market, said Roland Clarke, a volunteer co-ordinator for the project.

The city-sanctioned street market – launched in 2010 as a protest against police ticketing of street vendors – currently runs once a week. Mr. Clarke would like to see the operation become permanent, saying that on the days the market is in session, street vending dramatically declines. A constitutional challenge on behalf of street vendors who have been ticketed by police is before the courts.

The newest commercial space available on the block, managed by Living Balance, consists of renovated space that contains ground-floor commercial space as well as 19 self-contained apartments on its upper floors. A leasing advertisement describes the commercial space as a “character renovated retail/restaurant opportunity” in an “emerging neighbourhood” that would be a strategic location for a boutique retailer, restaurant or showroom.

Under its agreement with the city, Living Balance agreed to set aside five units for tenants eligible for a provincial subsidy known as Safer, or Shelter Aid for Elderly Renters. The rest of the units are to be rented at rates of between $800 to $1,000 a month.

“We find ourselves in a very challenging situation,” Mr. Howes said, adding that some prospective residential tenants have already said they would not be willing to rent on the block.